Friday, February 21, 2014

Quietly Through The Eastern Front: The Monuments Men

The Good: Interesting concept, Decent acting
The Bad: No real character development, When you’ve heard the concept, you’ve pretty much seen the movie . . .
The Basics: Releasing after awards season, The Monuments Men is a splintered historical drama that fails to go beyond its one-line concept to make a film of enduring greatness.

George Clooney’s production company, Smokehouse Pictures, had a good 2012. Their film, Argo (reviewed here!) won the Best Picture Oscar and Clooney’s partner at Smokehouse, Grant Heslov, decided to use that cache to further his writing career. Heslov and Clooney co-wrote the screenplay for The Monuments Men, which was adapted from the book by the same name. What is intriguing from a production perspective is how Clooney and Heslov opted to hedge their bets for the 2013 award season. Smokehouse Pictures released August: Osage County (reviewed here!) in time to get the inevitable nominations for the Golden Globes and Oscars that Smokehouse wanted, but to not crowd the field, they held The Monuments Men off until February. February is one of two death slots for films; it’s the Friday night prime time slot for movie releases. In other words, for a company that has taken a simple-concept film and made it into an award-winner – as they did with Argo - it seems like a severe lack of confidence in their own production to release a film in February.

When watching The Monuments Men, though, the lack of push for awards season comes to make a lot of sense. Given the stellar cast, I was eager to watch The Monuments Men, which is why I was surprised at how poorly the film landed. The Monuments Men is a film whose concept is not expanded upon, developed, or enriched beyond the one-line pitch for the film. In other words, with my next line, the entire film is pretty much spoiled (or, if you’ve seen the trailer or heard anyone describe the movie, it’s pretty much done for you). The Monuments Men is about a group of art experts who infiltrate France and Belgium in 1944 as the Germans are withdrawing from their occupied territories and attempt to recover and protect any artistic antiquities they can find before the Germans destroy them. Based on historical accounts, The Monuments Men is not a riveting adventure like Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark (reviewed here!), but it is a story worth telling.

Sadly, the lack of comparative excitement or sophistication makes for a poor film. The Monuments Men is a ridiculously simple concept presented with historical realism as opposed to a sense of dramatic tension. As a result, the film does not develop characters, it does not illustrate a team coming together for common purpose, it does not involve clever people piecing together clues to save antiquities. Instead, a disparate group of individuals are tasked with an assignment, they break into small teams, and target specific locations operating mostly on hope or common knowledge until one of the least important characters finally realizes a pattern that could have saved a lot of time and lives if only he had looked at a map and used his brain a year and a half (and an hour in filmwatching time) earlier.

As the Nazis advance through Europe, they collect and steal artwork. In Belgium, the painting set known as the Altar of Ghent is protected by Belgian clergy until it is stolen as well. When Frank Stokes learns that Hitler is planning to build the world’s largest museum, he convinces FDR to commit some men to recovering and protecting the artwork stolen by the Nazis before they can destroy it or get it back to Berlin. In Paris, Claire Simone is forced to work for the Nazi, Viktor Stahl, in order to protect the works of art captured in France. When Stahl withdraws, taking what art he can with him, Simone is imprisoned as a collaborator.

Stokes assembles his team of art scholars, including James Granger, Richard Campbell, Walter Garfield, Preston Savitz, the Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont, the Englishman Donald Jeffries, and the young German Sam Epstein, who enter France through Normandy (quite a bit after the invasion). They then split into teams to try to recover sculptures, paintings, and other artwork the Germans have hidden. As one team works with the priests who have hidden artwork through the war, another finds Stahl’s hideout and another goes searching for the sculpture of Madonna and Child. As the different teams meet with varying degrees of success in their mission, they manage to uncover more obviously recognized valuables, are put in harm’s way, and suffer casualties just as any other unit would. Reuniting, the team’s mission becomes more important as the Nazis begin a scorched earth policy on their stolen antiquities as the war turns inevitably against them.

The problem with The Monuments Men is that it truly is over the moment the concept is revealed; the details beyond the concept are presented in such a listless and undramatic way. The film is not about the characters, so when the team (and I use that term lightly considering how the group is split up almost immediately in order to cover more ground) suffers casualties, it seems much more inevitable than dramatic. It is hard to empathize with the characters, especially when a scene reveals a collection of teeth fillings from executed Jews. Yes, antiquities are exceptionally important, but losing a person or two who is trying to safeguard them seems diminished when one looks at a pile of fillings and realizes that innocent people were simply executed for being who they were. In simpler terms, The Monuments Men is about guys who signed up to risk their lives to recover antiquities and some lose their lives in the process, but that sacrifice is one they were prepared to make. The film does not develop the characters enough to make those deaths resonate with the audience. In fact, there is a sense that some casualties were pretty much bound to happen given the nature of the characters (they are not professional soldiers).

The acting in The Monuments Men is fine, but there is nothing extraordinary delivered by the amazing cast. Bill Murray is used to deliver comic relief, John Goodman plays an understated good guy, and George Clooney . . . he shaves his beard as quickly as possible so he’s recognizable as George Clooney. Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett also appear in the film. The acting is fine; none of it is spectacular.

Argo was a pleasant surprise; it took an event that the entire world knew about (the Iran Hostage Crisis) and told a story most people did not know – how some of the hostages were snuck out of Iran by the Canadians. The thing is, because the story became public knowledge, Argo had only one way it could end, with the successful execution of the plan. Yet, Argo has a dramatic tension and narrative quality that makes one forget they already know how it will end. It is easy to become immersed in the moment of the film. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men never gets there. This (previously) untold story of a lesser-known part of World War II history does not have an immediately obvious resolution – the mission could succeed or fail – and it is told in an unremarkable and zestless way. Smokehouse Pictures banked on creating a historical document, which they did adequately, but they failed to make a great, or even engaging, film.

For other works with Bill Murray, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Get Smart
The Darjeeling Limited
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
The Royal Tenenbaums
Charlie's Angels
Cradle Will Rock
Space Jam
Saturday Night Live - Season 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an easy, organized listing by title of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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